Repentance and Consequences

Bunches of grapes

After the children of Israel were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they spent 40 years wandering in the desert before entering the land God had promised to them. In that 40 years, almost all of the adult generation died. It was their children who eventually entered into the Promised Land.

The reason for this long period of wandering is told in Numbers 13-14. The story is retold in Deuteronomy 1:19-45. The summary version goes like this:

After receiving the 10 Commandments, Moses led Israel to the edge of the land God promised to their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Yet, rather than marching right in, the people wanted to send in scouts, one from each of the twelve tribes, to see what the land was like and what the challenges would be in occupying it. All of the scouts agreed that it was a good and fertile land, but they didn’t agree on the challenges. While two of the scouts, Caleb and Joshua, returned with a faith perspective which believed that God could overcome the obstacles, the majority report prevailed: There are giants in the land; they will overcome us and take our children from us as the spoils of war.

Thus, Israel refused to continue the journey. Some actually plotted against Moses seeking to choose a leader who would take the people back to the relative safety of Egypt. They threatened to stone Caleb and Joshua. In turn, Moses cried out to God and perceived that God was about to wipe out the whole nation and start over. Moses interceded for the people, and God spared them and sent them back into the desert from which they just came. God also made clear that the current generation would not enter into the land, but their children would.

Then, a strange thing happened. Instead of heading back into the desert as they were instructed, a group of warriors climbed the hills overlooking the land. They “repented” and admitted their sin of not going in as God commanded. They wanted to quickly make things right. Despite the warning from Moses, they attacked the people in the land. And they were soundly defeated.

What happened? Weren’t they just doing what God had originally told them to do? Weren’t they now following God’s original instructions? So why weren’t they successful?

The people of Israel were very much like most of us. The overarching problem was that instead of operating by faith in the God who had already rescued them from many impossible circumstances, they operated by their own insights and reasoning. They followed only their own political power instincts instead of trusting in God.

Their first step was a small one; they wanted to study the situation and bring back a report. There’s nothing wrong with that in itself, except that so often our “reports” simply reinforce our original spiritual reasoning. If we operate by faith, we see the possibilities God has in store. If we see only the obstacles, we become petty and angry and rebel. “Why can’t we just go back to the ‘good old days’ in Egypt?” (Never mind that those days weren’t that good.)

There are always consequences for not being faithful. God says, in effect, that with their attitude, they have created a “dead end.” God and Moses can’t lead a people into the land if they won’t follow. By choosing not to enter into a new life, the people have actually chosen some form of death. The standard assumption of the time was that the death would be immediate and universal. But Moses remembered God’s mercy and God’s reputation. He pleaded with God and God told him what would happen instead. Out of a dead end situation, new life would emerge. The people as a whole still needed to go back out into the desert. The generation of adults would die out during the 40-year period. Yet, the next generation would inherit the land. God’s promise would still be fulfilled.

Then comes the next human tendency. Instead of accepting the consequences and living into a period of repentance in the desert, we want a quick fix instead. We want God’s promises and we want the blessings now! We think that obedience to God is a kind of grudging acceptance of God’s original plan that will somehow magically make things right and force God to do what God promised to do.

Yet, the focus is still on “me” and “us” instead of on a trusting relationship in God. What really needs to happen is for us to truly repent (turn around) and return to a faithful trusting relationship with God. The fake repentance and quick fix is not the same as re-establishing a truly dependent and trusting relationship with God. We need the time in the desert for God to work in our hearts to get our priorities straight so that we can again carry out God’s will instead of our own selfish ambitions based on the power politics of the day.

Most of us (including the children of Israel in the Bible) see these consequences as God’s “wrath” or “anger.” That, in itself, is from our human point of view. If God’s will is opposed to our will, of course it seems to us like God is the one who is angry. But God’s real attitude is that of love. It is a love that doesn’t force God’s will on us. It is the love of a parent who says to the child, “You will need to live with the consequences of your own actions.” Yet, it is also a love at work to mitigate and shape those consequences so that new life can emerge out of the seeming “dead end.”

True repentance doesn’t necessarily take away all of the consequences, but it does lead to a way through the changing circumstances. By trusting in God, we can yet come into new life in the Promised Land!

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